A Deft Crackdown on Democracy in Cambodia

After a strong showing by Cambodia’s opposition party in June’s local elections, the long-serving Prime Minister has severely cracked down on dissent in a lead up to the 2018 national elections when his seat will once again be vulnerable. MJIA’s Online Editor who just returned from three months working as a reporter in the Kingdom shares his take on the situation

A young protester calls for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down on the final day of a three-day rally organized by opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Phnom Penh, Oct. 25, 2013. (Heng Reaksmey/VOA Khmer)

Following accusations that the 2013 national election, which Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia once again won, was a fraud, protesters and police clashed – violence ensued. Leading up to the election, the two most prominent opposition parties merged, creating the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the Kingdom’s first formidable opposition to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Today, the CNRP’s leader sits in a remote prison, Hun Sen has threatened to disband the party and has subtlely threatened violence if he loses next year’s national election. The most critical newspaper of the once lively free press and a slew of carping NGOs have been closed.

Democracy in Cambodia is like a faint glimmer of light in the dark. It is unmistakably there, but just barely and always at risk of being consumed.

Hun Sen and his CPP have stared down internal and external threats ever since he took power in 1985; after all, it’s quite impressive – if not deplorable – to earn a spot between The Congo and Uganda among the world’s longest serving rulers. However, the upcoming 2018 national election will see the prime minister’s seat once again up for grabs, and the sand appears to be shifting beneath his feet.

The Cambodia Hun Sen grabbed power from 32 years ago is a fundamentally different society today, and the strongman can no longer hide behind the pretense of democracy. His support among the older generation is dwindling, but as he strengthens ties to a powerful ally, China, and the West scales down their presence in Southeast Asia, he is rapidly consolidating power ahead of the 2018 national election, stomping on any veneer of justice.

"To ensure peace and to continue the development, the only option is that the CPP must win elections at all stages," Hun Sen publicly announced leading up to this past summer’s local elections. Despite this egregious threat and other anti-democratic efforts, the opposition party (CNRP) managed to win more low-level commune seats than any opposition party ever has, at 30%. On Sunday, June 4th, 2017, Hun Sen and his CPP monopoly on politics endured, but revealed signs of decay.

The threat now confronting Hun Sen is not one of elites. There are no royalists to arrest or foreigners to blame, even if he pretends there are. The threat now confronting Hun Sen has been a long time coming and it’s one that he’s never dealt with before – a demographic shift, creating a grassroots electoral attack on his rule.

Since Cambodia’s first election in 1993, it has been largely agreed upon that one factor has motivated Cambodian voters beyond any other – a hunger for peace. A quick look at the Kingdom’s 20+ years of foreign invasion, civil war and genocide leading up to that pivotal election is a testimony unto itself to Cambodia’s search for peace. Hun Sen has delivered thus far, but only so long as he keeps power – which the aging population is well aware of.

The older generation lived through terror and brutality so tremendous that they were more than happy to give up anything for peace, and they still are. But as they’re replaced by the younger generation of Cambodians who have known peace for much of their lives and are cognizant of the world beyond Cambodia’s borders, the electorate is demanding something greater than peace – a voice.

In the face of illegal land grabs by government allies, plain-clothed thugs murdering protesters, construction of massive dams that endanger thousands and even more sources of oppression, Cambodia’s youth voted this past summer to tell Hun Sen that they won’t settle for peace – they want rights. An unprecedented 90% voter turnout demonstrates the demand for rights extends well beyond the cities.

Hun Sen’s response has been both daring and calculated.

The past months have seen a frenzy of attacks against anyone critical of Hun Sen. First, he slapped the most critical newspaper, the Cambodia Daily, with a politically motivated

$6.3 million tax bill. Without a doubt, the Daily had not been paying taxes during its 24- year life in Cambodia, but neither do most businesses, and the figure of $6.3 million remains ambiguous.

Against a chorus of outcry by journalists, academics, NGOs and other relatively powerless voices the world over, The Daily died on September 3rd, and with it, Cambodia’s legacy of press freedom. Their reporters, both foreign and Cambodian, worked through the night to cover their final story. The last edition’s headline read, “Descent into outright Dictatorship,” in reference to the dramatic midnight arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha.

Over 100 armed policemen without a warrant arrested Sokha at his home, took him to a remote prison near the Vietnamese border and charged him with treason for allegedly colluding with the United States to topple the regime. The evidence referenced for his arrest is a four-year old video in which Sokha says he received advice from the US on building an opposition movement. He faces 30 years if convicted.

In speeches following the arrest, Hun Sen has drawn parallels between US collusion with the CNRP and the US installment of the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s, which remains infamous for brutality and poor governance that allowed the Khmer Rouge to form and take power. He’s also continually threatened to disband the CNRP – a warning, perhaps, for party members and other groups not to protest his thrashing fist.

Hun Sen hasn’t stopped with rhetoric. He closed the US State Department-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI), which existed in the Kingdom for decades with the goal of cultivating a lively democracy. Throughout all of this, the US response has been predictably underwhelming, as the US Embassy deprioritizes human rights and grows weary of a long tumultuous past in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, China continues to strengthen relations with Cambodia, a strategic ally as China’s claims to the South China Sea collide with that of regional heavyweights like Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and others. Acting as a counter power to the US, and the West, China may one day call on Hun Sen to return the favor when enmity boils into conflict in the South China Sea. Cambodia’s recent influx of $2 billion in investment and loans from China attests to the implicit, mutual and long-term commitment.

Just days ago The National Bank of Cambodia and the People’s Bank of China launched an official yuan-riel exchange rate, cutting out the US dollar, which formerly acted as an intermediary currency. Meanwhile, Hun Sen continues tearing into the US, recently telling thousands of garment workers, “The past grave suffering conducted by American imperialism. We haven’t forgotten the bombs and unexploded ordnance left on our soil,” referring to the secret CIA bombing campaign in the 1970s. “This story is happening again,” he eerily declared.

Anyone who presents even a potential threat to Hun Sen’s unambiguous authority is in the crosshairs. A slew of NGOs and more than a dozen radio stations, crucial sources of information for less-educated Cambodians, have been shut down without warning, leaving few to criticize his crackdown in a country where citizens are regularly arrested for critical Facebook posts.

In place of the previously free press, Fresh News, a government mouthpiece, has expanded from print to radio, and self-censorship surely lingers in the air for those still in the country. On Thursday, the Interior Ministry launched another mouthpiece, Nice TV, to cover “homeland security news.”

In case attacking critics isn’t enough to retain power post-2018 election, Hun Sen has been traveling the country in what’s been described as an ongoing charm offensive against garment workers, a massive group that drives the economy – as well as historical support for the opposition. He has made familiarly populist promises to workers such as an increased minimum wage, greater exports, and more foreign investment. In addition, he has railed the CNRP and continues to invoke implicit threats of conflict if he loses the election.

“I hope that workers and their parents, who have obtained peace created by the liberation and conducted by me and other leaders…will continue to vote for me so that I can continue these historical actions,” he recently told workers.

Many in the international media have called this the end of democracy in Cambodia, but democracy never existed in any meaningful way. This is the end of the democratic façade that Hun Sen hid behind for decades as he enjoyed popular support in exchange for suppression of outright conflict. As his popularity dwindles among young Cambodians, he continues to attack all sources of serious news while expanding his grasp on the flow of information. He has capitalized on largely pointless memories of conflict with the US to convince Cambodians that he, and not the CNRP, is the only one who can sustain peace; and he has begun the process of stealing votes away from the CNRP through cheap and unsubstantiated promises.

Over the next 10 months leading up to the national election, Hun Sen will surely employ the same strategies he recently has. With Chinese support, Western apathy and a continually expanding crackdown on dissent, there’s simply no one to stop him. He will silence his critics through force and coercion, and grow his voter base with promises to workers while hammering the public with threats of violent times if protests emerge. When Election Day finally comes around, no one can say now who will win, but Hun Sen will retain power, whether through “democratic” election or force. Will the Cambodian people, especially the burgeoning middle class of urban youths, accept Hun Sen’s legitimacy in the face of such blatant disregard for any semblance of democratic society? Time, ballots and bullets will tell.

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